Extended Reality – An In-Depth Look

Future of Industry

It’s not sci-fi anymore.

Extended reality is now poised to be the “the next big thing”.  From eyewear that displays information regarding anything in front of our eyes to gesture-controlled virtual worlds at our fingertips, the idea of virtual and augmented reality has always excited us.

On that note, here’s what we cover today – XR, the latest developments in the field, the best universities and institutions that offer courses on XR, different career options and what the future has in store for the technology.

In a nutshell, here's what we're looking at

What is Extended Reality?

Extended reality, or XR, is an umbrella term used to describe technologies that bring together both real and virtual worlds. The technology includes augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR). Worth around $30 billion in 2020, the Extended Reality market is well on its way towards hitting $125 billion by 2026. In fact, the growth of XR’s market share has been attributed to the different ways in which it has been deployed in the education, training, healthcare and gaming sectors.

XR was once viewed as the technology that could complement the entertainment industry. It was believed that an immersive experience would enhance the way a gamer perceived a game or a movie-goer watched a movie. However, the use of XR has gone far beyond this. It’s now being used to replicate real-world environments for training purposes in a variety of fields including healthcare and industrial equipment manufacturing. Also, the pandemic has accelerated the way the world perceives extended reality. The need for virtual conferences and training sessions have contributed to the increased popularity of XR devices. Additionally, the decreasing cost of hardware components like cameras, sensors, display systems etc, have led to reduced manufacturing costs. These have also helped to improve the quality of the devices being developed and to include sophistication in the way these devices work.

Latest Developments

  • VR devices are being predicted to have a larger share among XR devices. Head-mounted displays (HMD) are devices that can be worn over the head. They usually have an optic with display capabilities that is capable of virtually replicating real-world environments. These headsets are generally used for gaming, engineering, aviation simulation, entertainment and education. The most popular HMD developing companies include Facebook, Google, Sony etc. Gaming and entertainment sectors lead the way for AR technology as these applications are in high demand.
  • The availability of AR technology has been increased. Companies like Apple and Google have ensured that their latest devices are AR-compatible. With more and more developers coming up with different AR-capable applications, these devices provide a platform for the uninhibited growth of AR technology. Applications like virtual fitting rooms, customized product views for predicting how a product might look in a specific setting or how it may function, AR-assisted navigation, virtual manuals for building and developing tools, design of automobiles using AR and VR technology
  • XR devices are being used for the treatment of ADHD. XR health has been developing VR devices in order to offer therapy to ADHD patients. This can be used as an alternative to drugs and it was also found to improve attention.
  • The pandemic, however, has slowed down the growth of the XR industry. Due to prolonged shutdowns, manufacturers are not being able to meet the demands. However, the need for AR and VR devices are predicted to go up as medical professionals are expected to make use of them as advanced protective gear for treating patients. Vuzix Blade, a pair of smart glasses developed by Vuzix, has been used in performing surgeries. Using AR, the medical professionals can understand the existing conditions of patients, the medications the latter are on, what disease they are currently being treated for etc. With the advancements of technology, it might even be possible to develop devices that can scan patients and their internal organs. These devices could collaborate with AR technology to generate diagnostic information to treat the patients in a more tailor-made fashion.
  • XR-based campaigns have become popular in today’s world. Coperni, a French brand, presented its video campaign that was developed using Unreal Engine. Users can “be within” the environment which is played out on a quad-diamond-corner screen.

The Current Challenges

  • Security issues, as with any byproduct of technology, are common in the XR industry. Due to a large amount of focus on developing state-of-the-art AR and VR applications and devices, there is a significant lack of motivation in ensuring that the data generated through these applications are safe. The lack of regulations seems to make matters worse where there are no specific set of rules to which the XR developers have to adhere. Attackers with malicious intent may also target vulnerable XR technologies and steal user information.
  • Developing head and eye gears that have a wider field of view is a major challenge faced by AR device manufacturers. Image latency is also another issue prevalent with AR devices. This can lead to images getting loaded slower than they are supposed to be, leading to unresponsiveness and sluggish behaviour of the devices. Although these may not be critical when considering the use of such devices for entertainment purposes, the issues may pose significant challenges to mission-critical applications such as healthcare systems and real-time training purposes in defence sectors.
  • Due to the pandemic, disrupted supply chain, slow sales, modifying customer behaviour. However, due to the exponential growth in the use of virtual technology for communication over the past months, the comeback of XR technology maybe even quicker than imagined.

The reason these challenges are discussed here is because it is where the future scope of the technology lies. Therefore, if someone were to look for a starting point in XR technology, they should begin by focusing on what can be improved.

Roles in VR

  • Due to the wide range of possibilities within XR technology, numerous roles that deal with specific tasks are open to those who possess the skills. Software designer, maintenance engineer, graphic designer, design architect, system validation engineers, 3D artist, researcher etc are some of the roles that are available in the XR industry.
  • 3D artists are responsible for creating animations, developing games and creating visual representations of the media as envisioned by the producers.
  • Design architects are those who create the actual environments for AR/VR technologies. The architects develop these devices keeping the users in mind and ensuring the quality of the internal as well as external components of the XR devices.
  • XR researchers are responsible for working on the latest technologies and for developing new tools that help in generating AR/VR devices and software.
  • Maintenance engineers are responsible for ensuring the quality of a product even after deployment. They must understand how an XR system works and must accordingly debug the system.
  • Software engineers develop new software and enhance features on existing products so that multiple tools can work well together.

The Future of Extended Reality

Extended Reality in Healthcare

XR is set to play a predominant role in improving the healthcare industry. Researchers have already begun using AR and VR technologies to help patients with PTSD, reduce anxiety in children and help patients recover in a quicker manner. AR and VR are also being experimented with to be used for drug preparation and delivery. It can also be used for patient education where they are told what will happen to them during a medical procedure, rather than show them x-rays or scan reports.

XR in Education

Education is arguably one of the largest sectors to benefit from collaborating with the XR industry. The technology can help students to visualise what they learn, create immersive experiences, go on a virtual tour of places without having to leave the comfort of their classrooms or homes, and enjoy improved training. It also helps to improve the learning experience of differently-abled students.

Extended reality in military operations

XR is also benefiting military operations. From enhancing the abilities of soldiers to scout locations to providing an immersive training experience, XR can certainly be at the top of things to come. Just as in healthcare, the defence sector can also make use of XR technologies to combat PTSD in soldiers and help them recover from mental trauma. Tactical AR or TAR is the use of AR in military operations. Field statistics and other useful information can directly be fed to a soldier’s visor from where he can “see” more clearly.

XR in the entertainment industry

The entertainment industry is set to see an increase in its market share in the next decade owing to the integration of XR technology. The use of VR has already become popular in gaming and in filmmaking. With the advancements of improved designing tools, the future looks promising for the entertainment and XR industries.

AR in Automotive industry

AR is also predicted to play an important role in the automotive industry. When we talk about connected vehicles and smart vehicles, we cannot neglect the potential role of heads-up displays (HUD). These devices are capable of displaying critical information on the windscreen so that the driver does not get distracted.

The use of smartphones with 5G capabilities have made it easier for XR applications to proliferate rapidly. Faster internet connectivity means that it can accommodate the more complex requirements of XR technology. This can also help to reduce the latency and sluggishness of XR applications, which might otherwise pose a significant challenge for a seamless experience. Smartphones have played an important role in the growth and development of XR applications. Due to the sheer number of smartphone users, the market growth of the XR industry can be amplified.

Another potential focal point for XR applications is the development of applications that have multi-user capabilities. This way, entire environments can be replicated virtually for multiple users. Examples include virtual classrooms, arms training for defence activities, research units that replicate real-world settings that are impossible to access in reality, and healthcare, where surgeries involving multiple doctors and nurses can be aided by the presence of AR devices and applications.

Given the range of applications that can be improved with the help of XR, becoming an XR designer or developer is certainly going to improve one’s chances of being at the forefront of breakthroughs in technology.

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